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Religious Objectors : Election Feud Over Allegiance Pledge Is Curse for Some

Times Staff Writer

When Robert Johnson was growing up in Woodland Hills, refusing to say the Pledge of Allegiance could get a child in trouble.

“Sometimes the other kids would call us names like Nazi or traitor, " said Johnson, 50, a Jehovah’s Witness whose religion considers the pledge an improper act of worship before an inanimate object. “Sometimes we would get shoved around, threatened by other students.”

Teachers occasionally “would give you a hard time, even a bad grade because of your beliefs,” he said.

But that was more than 30 years ago and, in Johnson’s view, “the flag salute issue has been dead for years.”

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Until this presidential election year. Republican candidate George Bush has made the pledge a national topic. The pledge issue emerged when Bush began criticizing Democratic Gov. Michael Dukakis of Massachusetts for vetoing a 1977 bill that would have required public school teachers to lead students in the Pledge of Allegiance each day.

McCarthy-Era Tactics

Dukakis said he considered the bill unconstitutional, citing an opinion by the Massachusetts Supreme Court. He said he personally favors the pledge and accused Bush of using tactics from the McCarthy era.

Whatever the merits of the political battle, it has gotten Americans talking about the 31 words most of them learned by rote and repeat automatically on appropriate occasions. And the battle may generate more than talk.

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Most San Fernando Valley schools already start the day with the pledge, but officials at two schools that do not--one public, one private--said they will probably institute a daily pledge this year. And the mayor of the one Valley city that does not begin its City Council meetings with the pledge said the salute is likely to soon be part of the proceedings.

In all these cases, the probable changes can be traced to the political fervor over the salute.

There were also more personal reactions.

Tom and Joet Burgess of Woodland Hills lived in Des Moines, Iowa, 10 years ago when their son, Derrick, was in the second grade. Because they are Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Burgesses visited the school to explain why their son would not say the pledge.

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“The teacher told me that I should wait outside the classroom every day while the flag salute was being said,” Derrick, now 17, recalled.

“There didn’t seem to be any problem,” said Joet Burgess. “But when we got his transcript after we had moved, he was marked tardy for every single day he was there.”

They passed it off as a petty response by the teacher. But Joet Burgess worries that if the laws and courts begin to turn away from giving students the right to not say the pledge, there will be more serious persecution.

She brought out a Jehovah’s Witness magazine that quotes from Archibald Cox’s book “The Court and the Constitution.” The quotes indicated that several violent acts against Jehovah’s Witnesses can be traced to a 1940 U.S. Supreme Court decision backing schools that expelled students for not saying the pledge. Some “political responsibilities” outweigh religious convictions, Justice Felix Frankfurter wrote in the ruling.

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The court reversed itself on the issue three years later.

“We don’t think those times will come again,” Joet Burgess said. “But it’s at least important to remember what happened.”

Pledges of allegiance, in some form, have been around for eons, wrote anthropologist David Kertzer, whose book, “Ritual, Politics and Power,” was published this year. “In that prehistorical time, what defined someone as a member of a society was participation in some kind of ritual activity,” he said.

“It didn’t matter if you believed in the ritual. What mattered to the group was public participation. I think that has relevance to the Pledge of Allegiance today. What’s important to people is not that you believe what you are saying. The important thing is that you say it, that you participate in the ritual.”

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The United States pledge first appeared in a children’s magazine, “The Youth’s Companion,” in 1892 in conjunction with the celebration of the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’ first voyage to the Americas. It was an instant hit.

Patriotic Decade

“The 1890s was an intensely patriotic decade for Americans,” said Robert Dallek, history professor at UCLA and the author of books on Presidents Reagan and Franklin D. Roosevelt. “It was a time of neo-imperialism, when the European powers and the United States were establishing their flags around the globe.”

Clashes with state officials over the pledge requirement came as early as 1918, when a Mennonite girl in Ohio was expelled for not saying it. Closer to home, students were expelled in the 1930s and ‘40s for refusing to say the pledge in schools in Santa Barbara, San Diego and San Bernardino.

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In the summer of 1940, fights broke out in Elsinore when a religious group holding an outdoor meeting refused to say the pledge. Police officers ran the 30-member group out of town and told them to never return.

By the time Congress made the pledge an official part of the United States Code in 1942, several states had passed laws making it a mandatory part of the school day.

Ultimately, the Jehovah’s Witnesses, who generated the big court challenges to the law, won the court victory they needed. In 1943, three years after the Supreme Court ruled against them, the court reversed its position and decided that freedom of choice on a speech issue overrode any national good gained by the utterance of a pledge.

In California today, the state requires “appropriate patriotic exercises” to be conducted daily in public schools but does not specifically require a pledge. The Los Angeles Unified School District code, however, directs that “there shall be a daily Pledge of Allegiance to the flag of the United States in each Los Angeles public school.”

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The regulation is not strictly enforced. At the Valley Alternative School, a public magnet school in Van Nuys, Principal Larry Rubin said although there is a flag in every classroom, teachers are not required to lead a daily pledge.

“Each teacher handles this in his or her own way,” Rubin said. “We teach about brotherhood, about integration and about other cultures.”

Parents send their children voluntarily to the magnet school, and he said he had received no complaints about the lack of a pledge.

The pledge is also not a mandatory part of the day at Aggeler High School in Chatsworth, a public school for students who have been in trouble with the law. Principal Robert Shiner said he has had no complaints, but with increasing publicity over the pledge, he said he might have to change the policy.

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At one private facility, the Academy of Princeton College Preparatory School in North Hollywood, an administrator who declined to give her name said the pledge has not been part of the day in years past. She said she will probably institute a daily pledge this year.

Except in Hidden Hills, every City Council that convenes in the Valley starts meetings with the pledge.

“It’s probably just carelessness,” Mayor Kathy Bartizal said. “This is a small city and although our meetings are professional, they are informal.

“I think it would be a great idea if we started to do this, soon.”

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At Bush’s state campaign headquarters in Sacramento, spokesman David Puglia said the pledge is not part of the daily routine, although there are many flags around the office. He said that because people there have irregular schedules, there is no one time when everyone can get together. He stressed, however, that whenever there is a gathering with the candidate for a public appearance, “we are the first to stand up and begin the pledge.”

No Groundswell

Although politically conservative organizations said they welcome renewed interest in the pledge, there is no groundswell of support for making it mandatory.

“I feel strongly about the Pledge of Allegiance, but I can’t go so far as to say people have to say it,” said Andy Steffanic, state commander of the American Legion. “This is America and we don’t do that. People get to make a choice.”

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Pat Dixon, manager of the John Birch Society’s American Opinion Bookstore in North Hollywood, believes that Americans should closely study the wording of the pledge. But she does not believe in forcing it on others.

“I’m a firm believer in volunteerism,” she said. “I cannot force people to have a commitment to my principles.”

For one woman, the choice of whether to say the pledge is not so cut and dried. Mary Edwards of Sylmar said the choice is an emotional one that can change with the situation. Edwards said that in her Quaker religion, “everyone is expected to be guided by their own inner light.”

“We believe in an allegiance to a universal brotherhood, not to just one government. So, when I am somewhere where the pledge is said, I just quietly stand.

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“I don’t say it, usually.”

Usually?

“When I was at Girl Scout meetings with my daughter, the last thing I would want for her was for everyone to be staring at her mom, wondering why I was just standing there,” she said with a laugh.

“It’s not kind to be singled out when you’re a kid. It’s not kind.

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“Sometimes the most loving thing you can do in that kind of a situation is to go along.”


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